By Cade Leebron.
TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contain information about sexual assault and/or rape which may be triggering to survivors.
survivor. I don’t feel like a survivor of anything. Sometimes I think that one girl died on a bed in a dorm room on her third day of college; she died in his bed while he was fucking her, raping her, whatever. Another girl was born in her place and she rose, gasping, like a phoenix and ran from the room. She was a virgin. Nobody had ever fucked her, raped her, whatever. She was brand new, and she stumbled to a different dorm room and collapsed on the floor and then eventually crawled into the dead girl’s bed and fell asleep and in the morning she took a shower.
Three and a half years later, in April of my senior year, it still feels like a lie to call myself a survivor, I still don’t feel like I survived at all. I’m sitting on a carpeted floor, the institutional carpet leaving an imprint of its texture on the bottoms of my thighs, and I look around and start to speak to the people on all sides, unsure of which way to look. It feels wrong to start my sentence with as a survivor, but I say it anyway.
We are here, at this meeting of the Wesleyan University Student Assembly, to have a community discussion regarding sexual assault on campus and the role of fraternities, if fraternities should be dismantled or co-educated in order to combat rape culture, if fraternities contribute to rape culture at all. I turn to look at the back of the room and I see rows upon rows of massive men, fraternity brothers. They are just so much bigger than me that it is shocking. Why do they get the chairs? How did they get so big? I have seen them in the dining halls, their plates piled high with what would be several meals for me, but they didn’t seem so large then. Now here they are, massive men sitting in comically small chairs, perhaps those chairs were meant for small and fragile people like me who are instead down here on the floor. I don’t usually feel small. And I do know why they got the chairs, it is because they got here first, and I know what this must look like: they care more, we the women don’t care enough, we showed up a little late. The truth is that we didn’t show up late, we were here, wandering around the student center and avoiding entering this particular room, getting coffee and pretending to text, doing anything to not come here until the last minute. We were hesitant, maybe a little afraid, they were not. But we are here now, I am here. And so I say things, I add my voice to this war that’s happening very politely in this room, I say, according to the transcript, to the members of fraternities: if you care about women, why don’t you want to share this with them?
I’m sure that’s not how I said it, I know I said something about how siblinghood can be just as meaningful as brotherhood, how coeducation is a viable option, and something about how as a survivor, I feel safer in co-ed spaces, but I don’t remember exactly how I said it and the transcript is available online. It’s accurate enough.
I know that in the context of the world, a big place almost entirely full of crime and genocide and war and hatred and dead or abused children and terrorism, if you believe CNN, this is a very tiny little battle in this carpeted room. This is a group of college students at an extremely liberal liberal arts college arguing over whether or not men get to have clubs and call them fraternities and not let women join. And if we the women don’t fight against it, if we let these fraternities continue to exist, let men be together in this way, are they more likely to rape us? And are there enough of them for it to matter? Only three campus fraternities own houses. This whole situation feels artificial and surreal. We are having a conversation facilitated and policed by members of the student government and the administration. We are not allowed to laugh at each other or speak out of turn. A woman speaks, she says that the president of a fraternity called her a slut at a party recently. In response, the president of that fraternity introduces himself and then calmly attempts to explain it away, he says she was dancing inappropriately at his fraternity and that’s why he called her a slut, she was just dancing that way, dancing like a slut. As if this is justification. As if we should not notice that he is white and she is black and he is policing her body and the way it moves in his privileged space. We are shushed by student assembly members for booing him and then we sit quietly, chastised, waiting our turn, as the meeting continues. The minutes make no mention of this incident. The administrators, the supposed adults here, sit in a row of chairs against the windows to the right, they are silent. My campus therapist is among them, sometimes we make eye contact and then look away. This is a very orderly kind of pain. And it has become the reality, the vocabulary of my life. I’ve gotten so sucked into it, using these words, triggered, survivor, rape culture, so easily that someone might think it’s what I actually mean.
And do I feel triggered? No, I really don’t. I am not a gun or a bomb or any other instrument of destruction and I have no triggers. I feel fear, I know I feel that. I am afraid of massive men sitting on tiny chairs looking so barely contained, saying things that they might not realize scare me. Looking at me with eyes that seem to burn with rage, or maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe it’s in all of our heads, all of us girls in the room, on the floor, trying to say things to make them understand and we are all just talking talking talking trying to convince massive men that tiny girls are scared of them or we are massive men trying to convince tiny girls that they have nothing to be scared of. And I know that it’s not so gendered as I’m seeing it; there are women speaking in favor of fraternities and there are men speaking against them. But it does feel as though those women are traitors and those men are miracles. It shouldn’t, maybe, but it does.
Afterwards, when we’ve run out of time and have been politely dismissed, I make an effort to casually join a group of first-year women leaving the meeting. These girls didn’t have much to say at the meeting, though they did snap their fingers in support when survivors spoke. They chatter cheerfully about feminism and I am glad to not be wandering out into the darkness alone when we know that there are massive men out here, angry and freed from their tiny chairs and scolding bureaucrats. Everything we the women said was so falsely polite, so hollowly cordial and respectful. We’re doing as we’re told, we’re pandering. They don’t bother. Shouldn’t we know that this is not the time to be professional? I feel old, I feel tired of referencing one night almost four years ago, I feel frustrated and ecstatic and scared about graduation, I will be happy to leave this little war but worried about leaving my side of it in the hands of girls who sometimes talk about rape like it’s something theoretical, they talk about it as oppression, systematic, misogyny, as if those are the words you feel as you are being held down in someone else’s sweaty bed being fucked after you said no.
no, I know to some of them, rape is more than hypothetical, I’m not delusional enough to think that I was the last woman raped on this campus, but I’m sometimes just tired, just exhausted, just on the edge of asking all the girls who don’t know what they’re talking about to sit down and let those of us who know this pain stand up and talk. Untouched girls fall back, bros fall back, aren’t you rubbernecking to hear about the real thing anyway? Don’t you want me to say something about penetration, don’t you want me to mention sitting in a large and dimly lit building with other unknown people all trying not to look at each other waiting to get tested for STDs after it happened? I could tell you about peeing into a cup while resolutely thinking this is not my life and then realizing that in fact I had started a whole new life and everything from the last one was an utterly meaningless blur.
So no, I don’t feel triggered, I feel fear and anger and sometimes I see things that remind me of that past life: bottles of cava from Spain, sure, but also girls wearing crop tops out at night, girls walking alone at night, girls looking up at stars walking alone at night, girls laughing, girls swaying to music and their hair flowing out behind them.
I am in love with all of them, or, I want to be all of them, why wouldn’t I? Don’t I want to go back to that dead girl and wake her up and unrape her and make her whole and be her for a little while? Aren’t I tired of thinking about whether fraternities are bad and how to define my feminism and whether I should be afraid of men? Wouldn’t I love to go to college all over again and not be a survivor, a victim, a liar, or just a plain slut? Don’t I wish I’d never let a previous version of myself die, only to be resurrected as a scared and pathetic little thing?
A scared and pathetic little thing translating her feelings into the terms that those around her will understand, saying triggered when I mean scared, angry, nauseous, reminded, uncomfortable, weak.
I can’t remember when I stopped thinking that I had something in common with other women who’d been raped here. I can’t remember when I started scoffing at any notion of solidarity or survivor community. It might have been going to Take Back the Night sophomore year and watching a girl get up in front of us and agonize about whether the time her best friend kissed her in a basement when they were lying on a couch together watching a movie was sexual assault. It might have been sitting in the grass looking up at her and thinking, well, to me, that actually sounds pretty fucking romantic by comparison, and then instantly feeling nauseous and horrified with myself and standing up and leaving. It might have been senior year in the fall when a girl, whose name I remember but who I have never met, identified herself to the media as the girl who’d been raped at a frat party on campus and people saw it as scandalous that she’d dared to connect rape with her name. It might have been when I realized that so many people on campus just didn’t get it; they didn’t get that these men strive to make us nameless faceless whores, sluts, and that the real scandal is that we have gone along with it and pretended that this anonymity is necessary to our survival. It might have been when I noticed that the media never shies away from identifying victims of any other crime. It might have been when the survivor community took a supposed stand and started a website called Silence is Violence where survivors could speak out about rape culture and wasn’t it so fucking radical and exciting that we could post things anonymously online in this empowering forum and wasn’t it so great and meaningful. It might have been when I thought about the time, freshman year, when things had been posted anonymously about my rape online, on the campus Anonymous Confession Board, when his friends called me names and my mom found it and she saw all of it, she saw all those words, how do you talk to your mom after she sees all those words.
And it wasn’t that I was unique or special or the perfect survivor or the perfect victim. It was that there were just so many of us and our stories were so different and it is so hard to feel a sense of community when everyone has a story of that one time and they call it different things, they call it a bad hook-up, or they call it rape, and maybe it was a stranger or maybe it was their boyfriend but this feeling of violation can’t be unifying when it is felt by at least a quarter of the women I have met. I do not feel a sense of community when I meet someone else who bites their nails or watches bad reality television. I do not feel a sense of community with other people who are sixty-six inches tall, or people who have tattoos, or people whose parents are still together. Survivor is just yet another overly common characteristic.
On another April night, after yet another campus forum to discuss this important issue, I sit, in the lobby outside the classroom where the forum was held, leaning forward, on the edge of a bench. Brian*, the vice president of the student assembly, comes to sit beside me. He asks if I’m okay. I don’t remember how I respond. We’re both silent when Edmund*, an acquaintance, approaches.
“My dad was in a fraternity,” he begins, and then there is a blur of him insisting that though he isn’t in a frat, his dad is a nice person, and so are other men in fraternities. They don’t hate women. They are good guys.
I think about how Edmund seems like an old-fashioned name.
“But why aren’t you in a frat?” I ask.
“What she’s asking you,” Brian says, “is why you aren’t in a fraternity if they’re so great.” He sounds tired.
Edmund says something about how we are being close-minded. I remember that his girlfriend’s name is Ruth*, and in my head I am amused at the thought of them together, sounding like someone’s grandparents.
I remember a night back when Edmund was my physics lab partner, sophomore year, and he and Ruth had gotten into an argument before class, and he slammed some piece of equipment down onto the lab table in frustration. I remember looking at him and quietly finishing the rest of our report by myself while he texted her furiously, him sighing heavily after he sent a text and waited for her to respond, his finger tapping too hard on the edge of the table.
That feels so long ago.
I tune back in as Brian is saying something about how people like us are trying to say something real and maybe Edmund should stop talking and just listen. It shouldn’t feel so nice to be included, to be a part of something that might matter.
Jessica*, the student assembly president, comes over to us and asks if I’m leaving, she glances at Edmund in an annoyed way. I smile at Brian and stand up and we leave.
I walk Jessica to her meeting across campus, and then I just want to keep walking. I go to the campus grocery store and get an overly expensive chocolate bar with potato chips in it and a lemon soda. Both of them have shiny yellow packaging. I marvel at how the potato chips are still crunchy inside the chocolate. The soda is perfectly sour. The air is a good temperature, it surrounds me and holds me up in its humidity. I want to break things. I want the license to slam fancy physics equipment on metal tables and have it be loud and have nobody comment. I want to be bigger, to have a big muscular body to run around in and burn up all this energy. I want to be allowed to be aggressive, to smash some stuff if that’s what I feel like doing. I think it must be nice just to get to combatively approach vague acquaintances and express loud opinions. I think it must be nice to not be afraid. I think about how shitty it is that rapists rape people and leave bruises and then they graduate and get high-paying jobs and long-legged girlfriends and yet it is somehow considered radical that I tap my fingers so quietly on a keyboard in my bed at night to tell people about it. Fuck us if we’re quiet, fuck us harder if we try to speak.
In my head I’m still sometimes lying on the floor of my freshman dorm room with my clothes half on looking up at my bed like I can never climb that high, it is impossible.
But these words, these nights, these feelings, they are things I could shed and leave behind. It is May. This life of college is ending, over, now. Graduation marks another ending, after graduation I no longer have the option of pursuing charges against my rapist within the university’s system. This should feel like impending doom, but instead I feel almost relieved. This ending has been a long time coming, a long time spent eating in dining halls, attending classes, showing up to meetings, walking the same neat paths in the same purposeful directions, describing myself as a survivor who can be triggered so that people will understand that though I am not an instrument of destruction, I have lived through it, I have been so close, I could tell you such sad and awful things, but this is such brief education, and here we are at war until we are politely dismissed with our fragile diplomas and then we are gone.
In July, Michael Roth, the University president, writes a blog post asking for thoughts from the community on what to do about fraternities. I send him an email, it begins:
I was raped by a classmate on my third day at Wesleyan, in the fall of 2010. He was also a freshman, and thus not involved in any Greek life at that point, but he had made friends with a few brothers of one fraternity and the rape occurred after we had left a party at that fraternity. He later went on to pledge (though not initiate, by his own choice) that same fraternity.
It seems to me that sometimes when we talk about statistics of rape on campus, specifically whether they occurred in a fraternity house or not, this is what gets left out. I have heard several female friends describe being sexually assaulted or harassed by a fraternity brother on campus in places other than inside fraternity houses. I have also heard stories of women who were assaulted after leaving a fraternity party (by someone, not necessarily a fraternity brother, who was also at the party). I think that fraternities perpetuate male domination and the objectification of women, and that this attitude is not contained within the walls of the fraternity houses. Men in that space (whether they are brothers or not) are allowed to view women as “others,” which is at least partially because they could never be brothers. Men explicitly have the power in these spaces, and fraternity brothers seem to have a particular respect for each other and for other men.
He responds, thanking me for my email, saying he has taken everything to heart. I try to believe him. I also try to believe it’s not a form email, with my name just inserted into a slot at the beginning, but it probably is. He’s probably received hundreds of emails just like mine but in different words. I think that’s a good thing.
In late September, it’s announced that Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees has mandated coeducation for residential Greek organizations within the next three years. This is amazing, it really is, I send all my happy thoughts to campus from grad school several states away, but I also wonder: did they do this for us, because we asked to feel safer, or did they do it for their own reasons, because the frats were becoming a liability? Does it matter, when both have the same outcome?
Some of the frat boys are enraged, as expected. I just don’t care, I just don’t give a fuck if they’re feeling upset or inconvenienced, the safety of women on campus will always mean more to me than their hurt feelings or whatever loss they’re experiencing. I want to ask them to come lie on the floor with me, to feel really low with me, to understand that because of the actions of one boy four years ago I still sometimes stay up until five in the morning doing absolutely nothing other than lying in bed hating myself. I want them to know that he didn’t go to therapy, I did. He didn’t think about dropping out, I did. He didn’t drink himself to sleep for months, I did. Even now I am constantly monitoring myself, interrogating myself, trying to make sure that I don’t fall into those bad habits again, I’m still reminding myself to practice whatever self-care I can manage. And we both graduated in May, we both wore red caps and gowns and when they called his name to give him that diploma, I heard one lone voice rise up to cheer for him, and knowing that only one person in a crowd of thousands loved him, knowing that when my name was called I would hear a chorus of voices cheering for me, even though it was mean and it was hollow and it was selfish, I felt finally somehow victorious.
*names have been changed.
Cade Leebron, a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, is now earning her MFA in nonfiction at The Ohio State University. Her work (nonfiction & photography) has appeared or is forthcoming in Inside Higher Ed and Qu: A Contemporary Literary Journal. She can be found online at www.mslifeisbestlife.com or on Twitter @CadeyLadey.
Featured image by Tiffany Lucero.